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State of the state: Nonprofit

Rob Smith says he’s been on a journey his whole life, and that was never more evident than this past summer, when he embarked on a solo cross-country bike trip, starting July 1 in Anacordis, Wash., and ending 67 days and 4,264 miles later in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Smith, executive director and co-founder of Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute, was awarded a 2012 Bonfil-Stanton Foundation Livingston Fellowship, which each year selects five standouts from Colorado’s nonprofit sector and grants them $25,000 apiece to enhance their leadership skills. Activities chosen by fellows may include research, travel or executive coaching.

Smith, 43, saw the solo bike trek as an opportunity for self-reflection on his qualities as a leader and his role with Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2008 that has helped fund and launch 55 businesses in the past three years through its Business Launch Boot Camp.

“The neat thing about the fellowship program is that it’s 100 percent self-defined,” Smith says. “What’s the plan that’s going to help you go from success to significance as an individual leader? That’s different for everybody.”

Smith figures he camped out in a tent 39 nights of the 67-day journey. “My plan was founded on the notion of turning down the volume and noise in my life to understand how I would be able to move forward,” he says.

The trip also provided him with a close-up look at businesses and the economies of small-town USA, from the impoverished Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Wolf Point, Mont., to the downtown revitalization efforts in Port Hope, Mich. Smith chronicled his observations on his blog, positivecollisions.com.

“The secondary objective was, ‘Hey, since I’m riding through all these great communities, is there something I can learn and grow from by experiencing these communities?’” Smith says. “I don’t think you can grow as a leader until you can grow as yourself. So that was a big ah-ha for me – just starting to identify some of the themes in my life that I wanted to work on and things I’m strong at that I can use as an opportunity to bring value. That really was kind of my thought process when I was on the ride.”

While in Port Hope, Smith got to know the owner of an ice cream shop and another man who was working to revitalize the train depot on Main Street. Over breakfast they got into a conversation about what constitutes a “local.” The two men told Smith that though they’d both lived in Point Hope for more than 20 years, they still weren’t considered locals because they didn’t have a family gravestone in the cemetery.

“We had great conversations,” Smith says. “Everybody was very interested in the ride. Some people were so focused on trying to understand the ride that every time I’d try to change the subject, they’d change it right back.”

Smith has been back at RMMFI in Denver since late September, but he says, “I’m still growing from this. I’ve been having these series of shock waves follow me after the ride. I’ll be talking to someone about it and get hit with this epiphany – something I didn’t necessarily think about during the ride but it was a learning moment that just caught up to me.”

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Mike Taylor

Mike Taylor is the editor of ColoradoBiz magazine. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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